New Mass. bill would ban sex offenders from playing Pokemon Go

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STATE HOUSE — A lawmaker from Gardner wants to keep sex offenders from playing Pokemon Go, the cell-phone based game that created a craze last month.

Using location software, the game allows players to wander around in the real world to capture creatures known as Pokemon in the app-based game, while also visiting Pokestops and gyms – both in-game creations tied to real-world places.

The Boston Common and other areas have been swarmed with people playing the game on their phones in recent weeks, and the game was referenced in a Senate debate about whether to allow the State Lottery to offer online games.

Rep. Jonathan Zlotnik, a Gardner Democrat, filed a bill Monday that would bar sex offenders from playing “augmented reality” games, including Pokemon Go.

“The unique game and its playing features present the possibility that potential sex offenders could use the features of the game to commit crimes against children,” Zlotnik said in a press release. “Anytime a new technology comes along we have to make sure that the law keeps up so that criminals can’t take advantage of any created gaps.”

Unlike other online activities – such as Second Life and World of Warcraft – the game developed by California-based Niantic does not include communication between players online. Players wander around the real world, often congregating in popular locations, in their pursuit of Pokemon within their phones.

Since its July release, news organizations have documented a number of surprising discoveries made by Pokemon Go players and reported some safety hazards – including car accidents and incidents in Missouri, where a group allegedly used a tool within the app to lure players into robberies at Pokestops. Other stories have aired grievances of people whose homes became popular stops for players. The Boston Herald on Tuesday reported a Holyoke man whose home was designated as a gym in the game, had been referenced in a class-action lawsuit seeking to bar private property from being featured in the game.

Pokemon Go is not the first augmented reality game, though it’s clearly the most popular yet.

Niantic declined to provide data on usage of its app. The company also developed Ingress, which linked real-world locations to virtual portals. A spokesman for Niantic said some portals submitted by Ingress players were used in the creation of Pokemon Go.

“One of our core missions at Niantic is to encourage safe outdoor play and exercise. We are always listening to our community and we have heard the concerns raised in recent days about Pokemon GO. We will always ensure our products comply with applicable laws,” the company said in a statement. “We also believe that parents know their children and neighborhoods best, and we encourage them to supervise their kids to enjoy Pokemon GO safely, as they would with any outdoor activity or phone app.”

Zlotnik’s bill would require the Sex Offender Registry Board to prohibit “the use of location based augmented reality multiplayer games by sex offenders.”

Asked if he had played, the lawmaker told the News Service he had “tried it out.”

Massachusetts lacks the restrictions some other states place on convicted sex offenders’ residences, and the Supreme Judicial Court last year struck down a local ordinance in Lynn seeking to bar sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school or park.

Paul Shannon, a Somerville resident and founder of the group Reform Sex Offender Laws, said restrictions on where sex offenders can live do not help keep people safe, and the most effective approach is to “reintegrate them into society.”

“This is just one more example of creating a sense of fear and hysteria,” Shannon told the News Service about Zlotnik’s bill, saying the severity of offenders’ sex crimes varies and as a class they are treated as “demons who have to be restricted from participation in life.”

Shannon, who said he has never been accused of a sex crime, said he started the national group in 2007 with others concerned about how the treatment of sex offenders has affected society.

In last year’s decision, Supreme Judicial Court Justice Geraldine Hines wrote that under the ordinance 95 percent of homes in Lynn would be uninhabitable by the city’s 212 registered level two and three sex offenders.

Hines wrote that rather than restricting where they can live, Massachusetts seeks to protect the public through sex offender registries, including a public listing of those deemed most dangerous.

The Sex Offender Registry Board said it did not have data on how many other local ordinances are on the books.

In individual cases judges set conditions of supervision on sex offenders, restricting their movement, contact with potential victim groups and activities that could bring them into contact with potential victims, according to the probation department, which monitors about 845 sex offenders with GPS bracelets.

Shannon said Zlotnik’s bill would have “no effect on public safety at all” and said it was “playing to the crowd.”

Zlotnik likened his legislation to restrictions on participation within youth sports leagues and said augmented reality games don’t have those controls.

“This legislation significantly differs from restrictions that have been struck down in the past by the SJC, like residency restrictions,” Zlotnik wrote. “In their decision to strike down local residency restriction ordinances, I think they left the door open for the legislature to act on a statewide basis.”

Once the bill is admitted in both branches and referred to a committee, a public hearing will be scheduled.

— Written by Andy Metzger

Copyright State House News Service